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To homeless, river cleanup raises fear of displacement

Katie Mulvaney

Providence Journal USA TODAY NETWORK

WOONSOCKET – T.A. had one thing on her mind when she arrived at the Safe Haven drop-in center Wednesday afternoon: This Saturday’s massive volunteer effort to clean up the banks of the Blackstone River.

T.A., a slight, skittish woman with a worn look, heard that the work would stretch across the weekend. She worried her campsite and belongings would be targeted, destroyed and trucked away from the spot where she’s been living.

Danielle Dextradeur, a peer specialist working at Safe Haven, advised T.A. to move her property to a safe place.

“Where? Where am I going to move it? Where am I going to go?” said T.A., who asked to be identified by her initials out of fear.

Dextradeur reminded T.A. that she has rights under the Homeless Bill of Rights, passed by state lawmakers in 2012, ensuring that people without housing have the “right to a reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her personal property.”

Tension over cleanup a symptom of larger problem in Woonsocket

T.A.’s predicament, like that of the dozens of people living in tents under bridges and in woods along the Blackstone River, highlights the high anxiety accompanying news of “Zap 50,” an initiative by Keep Blackstone Beautiful and the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council to mobilize thousands of volunteers to clean up areas throughout the Blackstone River watershed. Rumors have circulated that the volunteers are

being trained to break up encampments, a suggestion organizers strongly deny.

“That’s not the intent at all,” said Donna Kaehler, director of Keep Blackstone Beautiful.

Instead, she said, the initiative is a nod to the 50th anniversary of the first Operation ZAP (Zero Away Pollution) event, held on Sept. 9, 1972, a highly successful clean-up thatmay rank as the nation’s largest single-day environmental cleanup effort.

“It’s about bringing awareness and fun,” Kaehler said.

The tension over ZAP 50 exposes a still greater chasm between the vision for the historically hardscrabble city by its leaders and the reality of those living and experiencing it on the ground, according to advocates for the city’s at-risk residents.

They accuse the city government of mistreating this vulnerable population by disrupting campsites and pushing people from one location to the next, though it is unclear who is behind any such disruptions.

“We are repeatedly being told by clients that their tents are being cut up. That has definitely been their strategy to make them uncomfortable by keeping them moving from one place to another,” said Michelle P. Taylor, vice president of social health services at Community Care Alliance, which created Safe Haven as a respite and harmreduction center for the community during the COVID pandemic.

Jessica Jones, an outreach worker at Safe Haven, puts it more bluntly.

“They are trying to corral them. To where? Out of sight, out of mind. I feel like they are trying to make Woonsocket something else,” said Jones, who has lived on the streets and is in recovery from substance use.

For Taylor, it’s part of ongoing issue in which the city fails to consult with those working with the vulnerable population to find solutions.

“There has been absolutely no willingness to work with us,” Taylor said.

Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt didn’t return phone calls seeking comment, nor did Department of Public Works Director Steve D’Agostino, whose crews some suspect are behind the campsite destruction.

The Woonsocket Police deny playing any role.

“We’ve done absolutely zero in any of this … We’ve been very careful. We made it clear: ‘no removing people,’” Deputy Chief Thomas Calouro said this week. The police, he said, have not fielded complaints about tents being slashed or campsites disrupted.

Mismatch between housing, population

The homeless crisis in Woonsocket has been building for a decade, with far too few affordable housing units available, forcing low-income people onto the streets, Taylor said. Though more than 10% of the city’s housing qualifies as affordable, that’s not nearly enough, as 21% of residents fall beneath the poverty line and the city’s median household income ranked as $44,310 in 2020, she and others say.

Residents do complain about people living in tents along the river, creating filthy, unsightly conditions under bridges, behind the library and elsewhere. Refuse and slashed tents can be seen along the riverside.

But advocates bat back criticism that by providing people with new tents, supplies and other services agencies, such as Community Care Alliance, are prompting at-risk people to flock to the city.

“What do we do, ignore it? Nope, we help. We’re not creating the need. The need exists,” said Jones, who grew up in Woonsocket.

In a year and a half, more than 670 clients have come through Safe Haven’s doors, about half of whom were newly unhoused, she said.

A steady parade of people arrived at Safe Haven on the third floor at 245 Main St. on Wednesday afternoon. Some collected mail, as T.A. did; others relaxed in couches and lounge chairs, away from the sun. One man pecked away at a computer, while several people chatted and grabbed something to eat. The center provides snack packs, hygiene supplies, case management, tents and backpacks.

Staff like Jones and Dextradeur were on hand to offer counsel, chat or direct visitors toward resources. A clinician from Integrated Health Home Harm Reduction Team, approved by the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, was also there to work with individuals facing severe mental illness, high-risk behaviors and homelessness.

“It’s just an ongoing issue in urban settings. This kind of a lack of a plan is not useful at all,” said Ben Lessing, president and CEO of Community Care Alliance.

Community Care Alliance workers estimated that more than 51 people are living outdoors around the city, with most struggling with serious mental illness, addiction and trauma, Lessing said.

Lessing said he alerted BDDHA officials this week about the situation in Woonsocket and “again urged that a state-level plan and approach is necessary to address the needs of this population.”

The state plays a role

Randal Edgar, spokesman for BHDDH, said the state is working with Community Care Alliance to transition individuals and families from the motel program for the unsheltered to supportive housing and has helped organize a housing fair to assist individuals with housing applications. In addition, the state pays for a CODAC mobile treatment van outside the nonprofit organization several days a week to support people with substance-use disorders.

“BHDDH looks forward to working with Woonsocket officials to help strategize how to utilize the newly established Opioid Settlement Funds. The goal is to use these funds to address the need for substance use disorder residential treatment options in the city,” Edgar said.

Baldelli-Hunt and other city leaders came under fire last year when they approved spending some of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act money on items like a synthetic ice skating rink and “Ergonomic Council Chamber Desk Seats.”

While the city’s plan for the first $14.1 million of its expected $36.4 million in ARPA funds included routine items like repaving streets and sidewalks, it didn’t include any money for housing or social services.

Christa Thomas-Sowers, an outreach coordinator at Community Care Alliance, meanwhile, said she wakes up each morning with a pit in her stomach.

“To have people living out on the streets, living in filth, it’s inexcusable to me that we are not doing better for these people. Winter is right around the corner,” Thomas-Sowers said. “It’s time for people in positions of power to tackle this problem because people are dying.”

For T.A., it’s just a matter of making it through the weekend intact.

Whatever they clean up, she said, “hopefully, it’s not mine.”

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